Tim Hiller, biologist and trapper over at the Wildlife Ecology Institute is looking to take on one of the greatest research challenges faced by furbearer managers and trappers today: the long term decline in muskrat populations. We’ve discussed the muskrat decline here in the past, but nobody has come up with a solid answer yet. Here’s a great writeup from Tim on the subject, and what we as trappers can do to help.
Declining Muskrat Populations? What Trappers Can Do About It.
By Tim Hiller
I have lived in, worked in, and trapped in quite a few states now, from Oregon to Mississippi to Michigan. And for quite a few years, I have had many conversations with other trappers about our common concern of declining muskrat populations, particularly in the eastern half of the U.S. As it turns out, this concern is also shared by state furbearer biologists, many of whom are avid trappers. I have learned that this concern has been around for about four decades, much longer than I had anticipated. Unfortunately, very little has been done to try to figure out what is causing these regional muskrat declines. We can change that. As a trapper, a furbearer researcher, and a former state furbearer biologist, this topic is of particular interest to me on many levels.
Muskrats are important both economically and ecologically. Muskrats, along with beaver and raccoon, are generally considered to be the backbone of the international fur trade. In fact, between 1974 and 2014, a very conservative estimate of the minimum total harvest in the U.S. is about 128 million muskrats. The most (9.4 million) during any single year were harvested during 1980. Over that entire 40-year period, the average annual harvest was 3.2 million muskrats, but between 1990 and 2014, that average dropped to only about 1.4 million muskrats harvested per year. Pictures speak louder than words, so take a moment to examine the graph associated with this article and you’ll see how much regional muskrat harvest as declined in the Midwest, Northeast, and Southeast. Muskrats are also of high importance to wetlands by creating habitat for waterfowl, shorebirds, amphibians, and many other wildlife species through their activities, so our concerns are much broader than simply harvest, trapper recruitment, economics, and such.
Of course, all of those numbers are related to harvest and are not estimates of population sizes, but there are some strong clues in there. We know that harvest is strongly influenced by pelt price for most species, including muskrats. The higher the price, the more muskrats that are harvested. Makes perfect sense, right? Having said that, the influence of pelt prices on the number of muskrats harvested has become much weaker in recent years. In other words, harvest has been declining, but the market value of muskrats doesn’t explain that decline in harvest. Consider also that although trends in the number of trappers has shown a decline for several decades, the estimated number of trappers in the U.S. has grown 24% in recent years, from about 142,000 in 2004 to over 176,000 in 2015. Again, these are very conservative estimates. But ask yourself, what species you targeted when you first started to trap, and also what newly recruited trappers are probably targeting most successfully and getting hooked on? Yep, muskrats.
If you’ve worked through all of this, perhaps pondering it over a cup of coffee, you might reach the same conclusion that many other trappers and biologist have: trappers are catching fewer muskrats and it seems most likely that muskrat populations have declined substantially. So now that I’ve seemingly backed up with numbers what has probably been obvious to many trappers for many years, the question becomes, What can we do about declining muskrat populations? I have some answers to offer on this topic, but to get this done, the support of trappers will be critical for success.
Recently, I was asked by a group of state agency furbearer biologists to develop a research proposal to examine declining muskrat populations. Because this is a regional problem, this would be a regional project, across many states in the eastern half of the U.S. and for several years. That translates into a large pot of funding, at least relative to a muskrat project (not necessarily so for a research project on much more charismatic species, like deer). This project would include assessing survival of muskrats (capturing, attaching transmitters, and monitoring to see how long individuals live and what caused mortalities), a mark-recapture approach (mark or “tag” captured muskrats and see how many tagged individuals show up in the trapper-harvest, to estimate population sizes), and perhaps other components, such as examinations and aging of harvested muskrats. These are really just a glimpse into what we can do. Nobody has attempted such a large-scale project on muskrats (or hardly any other furbearing species), but this is probably the only way we can get some answers and start to address this issue. Declining populations could be linked to habitat degradation and loss, pollution, disease, increased predation, increasing frequency and duration of flooding and drought, a number of other factors, a complex combination of factors, and different factors in different regions. These answers probably won’t come easy, but given the economic and ecological importance of muskrats, they need a lot more attention than what they’ve been getting so far.
So finally we can get to, What Can Trappers Do? The answer is, A LOT. Support can come in many forms. The first step would be to call or e-mail your state fish and wildlife agency, ask for the wildlife chief (different state agencies have different titles, but this is a good one to start with) and tell them emphatically that you are very concerned about declining muskrat populations, that you fully support the state agency funding a research project to address this issue, and that this needs to be a high priority. This can also be done through testimony at your state wildlife commission meeting, or simply a letter or e-mail to the agency so there’s a record of your concerns. If you can do any or all of this as a representative of a larger group, such as a state trapping association, your influence will be even greater. Numbers count here, and this topic needs to be on the radar of your state agency leaders because they are the decision makers.
The second step could be a commitment to be directly involved in this project in your state or region. State and national trapping associations, such as Fur Takers of America, fur industry folks, trapping supply dealers, and others can discuss internally whether they can provide financial support to help out. Budgets are tight whether you’re a trapping association or a state fish and wildlife agency, so every penny counts. Plus, the likely primary source of funding for a muskrat project (the federal Wildlife Restoration Program, based mostly on excise taxes on firearms and ammunition) involves a requirement of “nonfederal match.” This basically means that a portion of the overall project costs must be state (such as license dollars) or private (such as trapping associations, fur industry) funds. Also consider that nonfederal match can be achieved through volunteer time on the project, such as trappers helping to capture and monitor muskrats for this research project. Again, lots of opportunities for trappers to help!
Lastly, put even more in writing. A great example is being willing to simply write a letter of support from your group for such a project. I can provide these details to you, simply contact me. I can tell you from previous experience that a couple letters of support from several stakeholder groups can really help get a furbearer research project funded, especially a large and novel project. When these letters are submitted along with the proposal, it helps get attention and bring this topic to the forefront of agency decision makers. At least that’s been my experience.
If you are willing to consider any or all of these commitments, especially as an organized group, please contact me. I can readily outline more details and we can make this happen. But again, I will need your support in one form or another. Nothing would make me happier than to have this project successfully funded and be able to publicly acknowledge a long list of associations, industry folks, and others that contributed to this effort in one way or another.
If you want to learn more about what I do, especially in terms of furbearer research that benefits management (and trappers), check out the Wildlife Ecology Institute web site at www.wildlifeecology.org, or e-mail me. To my knowledge, there really is nobody else as strongly focused on furbearer topics, especially who is a trapper and who can work with trappers to achieve these goals.
Tim Hiller, Wildlife Ecology Institute